Just a Jolly Good Show?

“No one knows how to do pomp and circumstance like the Brits do.” An American woman was speaking, among the throng of more than a million in London on Friday morning, and it’s hard to argue with her. Even President Charles de Gaulle, no doting Anglophile, was awestruck by the sheer spectacle and precision of the Trooping the Color when in London once on the queen’s birthday.

Once again, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton — now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — displayed a native genius for putting on a good show. Everything about it, from the carriage procession to the trees inside Westminster Abbey to the groom’s scarlet Irish Guards tunic, mimicked by the ones the little pageboys wore, was infinitely stylish, with the perfection that comes of practice. As De Gaulle said, “C’est impeccable.”

Any movie art director would turn dark green with envy at Friday’s show — and maybe Hollywood comes too near the bone. For some skeptics a question lingers: are pomp, display and “invented tradition” all we “Brits” can do any more? Has Our Island Story ended in a sham pageant, with cinematic fakery concealing national decline?

The country today is in a severe crisis, as economic growth grinds down from slow to stationary, household incomes contract, and the government carries out a savage program of cuts in public spending. A wedding on this scale could seem a useful distraction to comfort the populace, “a Marie Antoinette moment, a layer of ormolu hiding a social dislocation,” as one sour commentator put it.

Even if that’s so, the sheer fascination with British royal events cannot be dismissed: it seems almost stronger outside our damp little island than within. Across the world, three billion people watched as the groom kissed his bride — an image splashed on the front pages of the next day’s American papers from the New York Daily News to the Wall Street Journal (the New York Times had it on an inside page, choosing instead for the front page a picture of the couple driving away in their balloon-infested car with “JU5T WED” number plates). In one country after another a tidal wave of kitschy memorabilia has flooded on sale, and now fashion firms from L.A. to Bombay are rushing to rip off the bridal gown. And there will be endless more programs and magazine features and books.

More serious historians may want to deconstruct the way the monarchy has evolved, and to a surprising extent kept apace with the times. A hundred years ago, the British royal family was strictly speaking the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, thanks to Queen Victoria’s marriage to a German prince. In 1917 — the date speaks for itself — the king announced that his family would in future be called Windsor, prompting the only known joke made by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who said that he was looking forward to a performance of “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.”

But “Kaiser Bill’s” throne vanished and the British throne did not, as it subtly changed its character. That new name was the decision of George V, who married the daughter of another German (though anglicized) princeling. His son, George VI, whose story is told in the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech,” married the daughter of an earl, the lady we knew as the Queen Mother for the last 50 years of her enormously long life. And her grandson, the present Prince of Wales, also married an earl’s daughter, even if that was not a success.

Gradually the royal family has cast its marital net much wider. Old-fashioned courtiers may raise their eyebrows at the origins of Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge. But the fact that her mother was a flight attendant, her grandfather a builder, and her great-great-grandfather a coal miner is a genuinely interesting episode in social history.

That may be part of the “fairy tale” which so many papers and television pundits have called the wedding. All the same, what those watching saw was not upward mobility but sheer glamour. And funnily enough, that radical notion of a royal wedding as a sop to the masses is quite close to what Winston Churchill thought.

“The news has certainly given the keenest pleasure to all classes,” he wrote to George VI after the engagement of the king’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. The wedding, said Churchill, “will be an occasion of national rejoicing, standing out all the more against the somber background of our lives.”

When he wrote this, in July 1947, the country was beset by severe economic problems, as it is today. It was also exhausted by a long war, in which that bridal couple — now our queen and her husband Prince Philip — both served. Then a mechanic in the women’s army corps, she is now the only living head of state to have worn a uniform in World War II. He is undoubtedly the only living spouse of a head of state to have seen action in that war.

With luck, William and Kate will have a son soon enough for his great-grandfather to tell him about the battle of Cape Matapan just over 70 years ago, one of the Royal Navy’s great victories in the last war of which we can all be proud, in which Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten participated. Along with the pomp and circumstance, the flummery and glitter, that could also help explain why, despite everything, a queen still reigns in England.

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the author of The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!

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